"Media Time Capsule" at the End of a Millennium

On the first day of January, many public ceremonies will feature time capsules -- sealed long ago, when "the year 2000" sounded incredibly futuristic. Those containers, intended for opening at the start of the new millennium, presumably hold evocative symbols of earlier eras.But as the moment nears to open old time capsules, we might consider what would be appropriate to put in new ones. For this high-tech age of super-duper mass communications, quite a few objects could go into a media time capsule. For instance:* A personal computerThis technological marvel became a mainstay in millions of American homes and workplaces. Widely glorified, the PC offered many advantages -- including quick desktop functions, speedy communication via the Internet, and clarity of visual images.The personal computer changed almost everything -- except content. The quality of ideas, the reliability of information, and the clarity of thinking underwent no discernable enhancement. Along the way, the advent of the PC greatly widened gaps between the media "haves" and "have nots" -- those for whom the cost of online access was incidental and those for whom it was prohibitive.* A television cableCable TV meant that instead of just flipping through a few broadcast stations, viewers could choose from dozens or even hundreds of channels. Media companies were able to "narrowcast" by appealing to specific interests. A few cable networks were willing to take chances with some artistic ventures that broadcasters shunned.Meanwhile, subscribers to "basic" cable paid hundreds of dollars a year for a monotonous collection of formulaic programming. Even viewers with access to large numbers of channels often ended up wandering through a glitzy wasteland of shallow entertainment and public affairs shows. For most cable customers, it was impossible to find a single national TV channel that wasn't constrained by corporate sponsors, underwriters or owners.* A "mini-cam"Arriving two decades ago, the mini-cam led the way for television news departments to be able to quickly edit broadcast-quality videotape, shot with miniaturized TV cameras.Unfortunately, on local news shows around the country, the main use for this advanced technology was to instantly produce footage from crime scenes, courthouses, fires and traffic accidents.* A hair dryer and a can of hair sprayWell-groomed and often blow-dried, the media professionals on our TV screens have rarely looked unkempt.Despite all the chaos in the real world, television proved adept at offering a sense of order and a never-ending supply of cheery artifice.* A set of handcuffsThe mass media kept people edgy and entertained with a profusion of news stories and TV programs devoted to crime and punishment.During the 1990s, in the United States, media depictions of crime skyrocketed -- and so did the number of people behind bars, reaching 1.9 million in 1999 (compared to 1,148,700 in 1990 and 501,900 in 1980). Television stations continued their barrage of crime news and cop shows, but social context remained somewhere between scant and nonexistent on the air.* White-tinted glassesOverall, news accounts did not convey information that might disrupt widespread racial illusions among whites in America.A distorted media picture has helped a slanted legal system to stay tilted. For example -- as recently reported by The Sentencing Project, based in Washington, D.C. -- "African Americans constitute 15 percent of drug users nationally, but 33 percent of drug possession arrests." Examining figures from 1985 to 1995, researchers found a 707 percent increase of black drug offenders in state prisons, compared to a 306 percent increase for whites. And records also showed that Latinos are incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate.* A satellite dishFrom virtually any part of the world, television networks have provided us with instant coverage of historic events.Last spring, American newscasts stoked outrage at Yugoslavia -- which was being bombed by the U.S. military -- as Kosovar Albanians fled murderous thugs abetted by the Belgrade regime. A few months later, newscasts were far less critical of Indonesia -- still closely allied with Washington -- as Timorese people fled murderous thugs working for the Jakarta regime. Not coincidentally, in the final quarter of this century, U.S. aid kept boosting the Indonesian government while it systematically killed more than 200,000 people in East Timor.The 21st century will get underway with plenty of wondrous technologies available for placement in a media time capsule. We can be proud of the gizmos, but not much else.Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."

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